Gender Equality is Impossible Without Reproductive Justice


Isabella Zhou (PPS ‘25)

Isabella Zhou (PPS ‘25)

Being a woman in the United States means that you may or may not be granted control over your own body, and ultimately your own life — contingent on what state you reside in. Dobbs v. Jackson eliminated the federal constitutional right to abortion. Thirteen states have now enacted near-total abortion bans, with nine making no exceptions for rape or incest. Essentially, a woman’s geographic location determines whether or not she is entitled to full equality.

Over 130,000 abortion-seeking women a year are no longer able to access services in their home state. In Texas and Louisiana, where abortions are completely banned, residents must travel over seven hours on average to the nearest abortion facility in a neighboring state. However, many women cannot afford to bear the burdens of transportation costs or taking time off work and school. These barriers predominantly disadvantage populations that are already vulnerable. Thousands of women with unmet abortion needs, most of them being adolescents, immigrants, or individuals with violent partners, will be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy or seek out unsafe methods of termination.

Here’s the elephant in the room: Many of these draconian policies are largely decided on by men, who effortlessly enjoy full freedom over their bodies while stripping those same rights away from women. The right to abortion is rooted in the right to bodily autonomy, or governance over one’s own body. Therefore, restricting or denying access to abortion care is a fundamental violation of human rights that is inextricably tied to gender discrimination– women are affected, men are not.

And although men play half of the role in creating a pregnancy, it is not possible for them to be subjected to the negative and potentially life-threatening effects tied to pregnancy itself. While women in America die from maternal complications at more than three times the rate of most other industrialized nations, men do not assume the health risks of childbirth. They cannot develop gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, or postpartum depression. They will never experience an ectopic pregnancy or endure a miscarriage.

Men also will not suffer the loss of income and barriers to employment that come with childbearing. The “Motherhood Penalty” illustrates how women are financially penalized for having children– mothers are less likely to be hired and more likely to be offered lower salaries than childless women, and mothers make 58 cents for every dollar earned by fathers. High childcare costs also push women out of the workforce to undertake caregiving responsibilities. At the same time, the US does not guarantee paid parental leave, rendering many women without a source of income during and after pregnancy.

When a woman becomes pregnant and makes the choice to continue with that pregnancy, she willingly accepts that these risks and implications may come to pass. Taking away the right of a woman to decide whether or not she wants to accept these risks is an imposition of oppression.

In attempts to justify restrictive legislation, pro-life politicians often propagate disinformation. In the Dobbs opinion, justices referred to abortions after 15 weeks as a “barbaric practice.” This is simply false– a fetus does not become viable until roughly 24 weeks, and 93.1% of abortions are performed prior to 13 weeks. Furthermore, many later-stage abortions are performed due to severe or deadly fetal anomalies that are not detected until the second trimester. The fear-mongering rhetoric in Dobbs reflects efforts to stigmatize abortion, despite the procedure being a normal and essential component of healthcare.

Moreover, anti-choice groups frequently cite the “negative mental health effects” of abortion. However, an APA task force concluded that getting an abortion does not increase risk for depression, anxiety, drug use, or other psychological disorders. In reality, we should be considering the mental health consequences that would come with being denied an abortion and coping with an unwanted pregnancy.

There is nothing “pro-life” about demonizing women who do not wish to have a child or are not prepared for the ramifications of pregnancy. The anti-abortion movement operates under the notion that women cannot be trusted to make informed decisions about their own health and well-being.

The bottom line is that equality should not be at the discretion of others. Women must have agency over their own bodies and lives, just as men do. We must advocate for legislation such as the Women’s Health Protection Act that will codify the right to choose into federal law and protect abortion access nationwide, because the path to gender equality is paved with reproductive rights.

Isabella Zhou (PPS ‘25) is from Dallas, TX and an Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ‘23 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.